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4G Upswing: Sharp growth in service adoption

April 11, 2017

India’s first 4G network was rolled out way back in 2012, but the years that followed were not very promising for the segment. Service uptake grew, but at a sluggish pace. Limited operator investments, inadequate spectrum, unavailability of affordable handsets, and lack of relevant localised content and application support all contributed to the  slow-evolving 4G ecosystem in the country.

The situation, however, improved dramatically in 2016 post the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL). This in fact  proved to be a major milestone in the uptake of 4G in the country. As per RJIL’s investor presentation, the data market has expanded six times in the past six months owing to the introduction of its services. The company is following a limited loss leader strategy, wherein it has been offering services free of cost since its launch and will charge only a nominal price post March 31, 2017. RJIL has pan-Indian 4G spectrum and the largest 4G network spanning across over 18,000 towns and cities and 200,000 villages. The operator does not have legacy networks, which makes it more flexible than the incumbents.

Increasing competition in the 4G segment has resulted in greater investments by incumbents. There has been an upswing in 4G deployments across all operators, which are now focusing on modernisation and densification of their networks. In addition, the availability of affordable 4G-enabled smartphones has improved significantly, as both local and global players are foraying into this segment driven by greater demand for these devices. Data tariffs are at an all-time low, bringing more customers on board.

Today, the country boasts of around 120 million 4G subscribers, of which about 100 million are using RJIL’s services. The company claims to have added seven subscribers per second over 170 days. Clearly, the era of high speed data connectivity has arrived and the momentum is only building up. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, the population coverage of 4G long term evolution (LTE) networks in India is expected to reach 45 per cent by the end of 2021. A look at the evolving 4G market dynamics...

Price wars turn fiercer

While it has already been six months since RJIL launched its 4G service, the tariff competition is still fierce. The incumbents, after being caught unawares initially by RJIL’s move, are making efforts to regain lost ground. To this end, all the three incumbents have come up with a variety of plans to match up to RJIL’s. Interestingly, even Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, which does not hold 4G spectrum, could feel the heat, as several users opted out of its networks to switch to RJIL. Thus, it has also been very active in launching data-rich plans.

Recently, responding to Jio’s launch of Prime subscription, under which the operator aims to retain its 100 million user base after its free services end on March 31, 2017, Bharti Airtel introduced Rs 145 and Rs 349 plans. The cheaper plan for Rs 145 offers 14 GB data per month with a 500 MB cap per day and unlimited calls to Airtel numbers. The Rs 349 plan offers unlimited calls to all networks in addition to the above services. Meanwhile, Vodafone India is offering 15 GB of data for the first three months at the same price and 6 GB thereafter.

Customer segmentation plays a big role in devising new plans and offers. Operators are ready to offer lucrative plans, but only to those users who have a very high tendency to subscribe to them. As per industry analysts, operators track behavioural patterns of users, their level of loyalty and willingness to spend and generally come up with a propensity score and then create specialised offers.

Aggressive pricing has become a necessary evil for the incumbents as the telecom industry has already lost about 20 per cent of revenues due to RJIL’s free services.

VoLTE may still take time

Even as the country has made swift strides towards the adoption of high speed data services, there is still time before voice over LTE (VoLTE) sees mass uptake. Currently, 4G is typically an urban phenomenon and operators will take time to spread their 4G reach beyond metros and Tier I cities to rural areas. Thus, in the near to medium term, 2G, 3G and traditional voice services through legacy circuit switched technology will continue to dominate. Even from operators’ point of view, incumbents will not modernise and upgrade their networks to 4G overnight, but will switch them off gradually. Further, the 4G device ecosystem in India is still evolving and more VoLTE-enabled devices will be required to make these services popular. Currently, only RJIL is offering these services. Bharti Airtel is planning to move to VoLTE but only in the next 12-18 months. Vodafone India and Idea Cellular are also undergoing trials for the same.

Going forward, about 40 per cent of the total voice calls are expected to ride on the VoLTE network by 2020. Despite this, industry experts estimate that traditional voice service through circuit switched technology will remain relevant and dominate the local market, owing to the country’s large rural population.

Consolidation to help survive competition

RJIL’s move to offer free voice calls and free roaming waged a price war in the market as incumbents slashed their tariffs to prevent subscriber exodus from their networks. The move has had serious repercussions on incumbents’ financials evident in their recently posted quarterly results. As a result of low tariffs and low ARPUs, the growth in data revenues has been disappointing even as data usage and adoption has gone up exponentially. Further, the steep fall in voice revenues has put a lot of pressure on the operators. This, in turn, has strained operator investments towards network upgradation and coverage enhancement. In such a scenario, the merger of Vodafone and Idea, and Airtel and Telenor may provide incumbents some breathing room. The resultant entity from the Vodafone-Idea merger will have a much stronger foothold in the 4G space.

Challenges remain

There still exist several industry-wide challenges that need to be addressed to realise the true 4G potential in India. First, the penetration of 4G-enabled devices still continues to be low. Although the availability and affordability of 4G handsets has improved drastically in the past six months, there is still a long way to go. As per industry estimates, the current penetration is as low as 1.6 per cent.

Second, the lack of relevant and localised content remains a key inhibitor to the mass adoption of 4G services, particularly in rural areas. This content gap is likely to narrow down in the next few years as several local and global over-the-top players are focusing on generating India-specific content.

Finally, re-farming of 3G spectrum to 4G will not be easy for incumbents. This will involve huge costs as the existing 3G base transceiver stations cannot be converted to 4G.

Outlook for 4G services

The telecom industry is set to grow significantly over the next three to four years led by the data boom. This will present significant opportunities for operators to maximise data revenues, provided they manage to augment their 4G capacities to match the burgeoning demand. As per RJIL, the total industry revenue will touch Rs 3 trillion by 2020-21, primarily led by data services.

Further, LTE will remain a key focus area in the coming years, as it will serve as the springboard for the introduction of 5G services. Already, several operators are partnering with global vendors to make their networks future-proof for a smooth transition to 5G services. To embrace 5G, the country needs a mature and well-developed 4G ecosystem. Thus, operators will have to develop a strong 4G footprint in the next two to three years, to bring 5G capabilities under a sharper focus.

Given the ongoing progress on the provisioning and adoption of 4G in India as well as the newfound operator interest in 5G, the outlook for the LTE segment looks extremely positive in the medium term.



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